Some say the American Civil War started not at Fort Sumter, but years earlier in the sparsely populated territory of Kansas. In the years leading up to the war itself, Kansas became a land marred by massacres, sacking, looting, and murder. The cause? The same issue that dominated the rest of the nation in the 1850s and 1860s: slavery. The capital of the Kansas Territory during these wild years was a now-obscure town called Lecompton, where the pro-slavery government set up its base, backed by pro-slavery presidents, despite the abolitionist sentiments of the state itself. The result? Four constitutions, rampant voter fraud, and a territory that descended into complete anarchy.
It probably shouldn’t have been this way, though. Before 1854, while the contentious issue of slavery had not been settled, it had at least been held in check by a skillful and careful blend of compromises. The northern parts of the country wanted nothing to do with slavery — some were abolitionists, favoring the complete destruction of the institution for its immorality. Most northerners, however, were content to let slavery exist where it had been for generations, but its expansion into the western frontier was unacceptable. The south, on the other hand, advocated for slavery’s spread. The resulting compromises kept armed conflict at bay for a time. There was the Missouri Compromise from 1820, which admitted Missouri into the Union as a slave state but prohibited future slaveholding states north of the 36°30′ line. Then there was the Compromise of 1850, which was actually a series of several bills intended to maintain equilibrium between the increasingly hostile pro- and anti-slavery camps. Finally, in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act re-opened the whole question and directly led to the tumultuous era known as Bleeding Kansas.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act said that territories coming into the Union could decide for themselves whether they wanted to be free or slave states, effectively negating the earlier compromises. The idea of territories voting on slavery was called popular sovereignty and had already been implemented in Utah and New Mexico (the former was north of the 36°30′ line) as part of the Compromise of 1850. Kansas was different, though. Utah and New Mexico were arid and ill-suited to plantation work, meaning slaveholders were not especially interested in them. Kansas was fertile and right next to Missouri, which had relied on slaves for decades. The result was disastrous.
Over the next decade, the state was embroiled in all kinds of violence and controversy. Bands of armed, pro-slavery men from Missouri poured over the Kansas border, voting fraudulently in elections and terrorizing their opponents, hoping to make Kansas a slave state under the new popular sovereignty policy. The town of Lawrence, known as a fiery abolitionist stronghold, was famously sacked in 1856 and was the site of the Lawrence Massacre in 1863. Nearby Olathe was sacked in 1862. Osawatomie was the site of a battle in 1856, as was Baldwin City. The free-staters had their moments, too. They led a raid into Missouri and plundered Osceola. Abolitionist John Brown initiated the Pottawatomie Massacre, hacking several pro-slavery men to death with swords.
For much of this time, the officially recognized capital of the territory was Lecompton, best known as the place where the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution was drafted. President Franklin Pierce and his successor, James Buchanan, appointed a series of pro-southern governors, but none of them lasted long. Kansas burned through at least six of them in six years — it depends who you ask. One source actually claims there were nine and another says ten, perhaps allowing for interim or acting governors, as some of the “official” ones quickly fled the territory. One governor, Wilson Shannon, later reflected on his time overseeing the territory: “You might as well attempt to govern the devil in hell.” Pierce and Buchanan (neither of whom have gone down in history as especially active presidents) did little to put an end to the chaos. Pierce once even remarked that the corrupt and fraudulent government in Kansas Territory was “beyond the sphere of action of the Executive.” In other words, it wasn’t in his job description. No territorial governor or distant president could bring order to Bleeding Kansas.
Soon enough the Civil War broke out. The Lecompton Constitution was eventually rejected and Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861. The new free-state government chose Topeka as the capital, the border ruffians went home to Missouri, and Lecompton faded from history. But what remains of the town today, the site of an uneasy pro-slavery government in an anti-slavery land?
I decided to visit on my way back from Manhattan, Kansas. I had always seen the signs along I-70 for Lecompton’s historic sites, but I did not know exactly what I would find there, if anything. After all, Lecompton is relatively obscure today, especially compared to some of its Bleeding Kansas counterparts. Its rival, Lawrence, grew into a thriving city — about 95,000 strong — and is home to The University of Kansas. Lawrence retains its strongly liberal reputation 150 years after the end of Bleeding Kansas. Topeka, with a population of over 120,000, is still the state capital. Olathe, which had been sacked by pro-slavery raiders in 1862, is now a prosperous Kansas City suburb with almost 140,000 residents. What of Lecompton?
It turns out that Lecompton does still exist as a town in its own right — something I am ashamed to admit I did not know despite living just an hour away. It has about 600 residents and is home to a handful of well-preserved historic sites. Surprisingly, the town now bills itself as the place “Where Slavery Began to Die” and features Abraham Lincoln on some of its signs. That’s a bit of a stretch, especially considering this place served as an ardent pro-slavery base during the bloodiest years in Kansas history — a sentiment others have echoed.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found in Lecompton. It’s a charming town, well-marked with signs and arrows to direct visitors to its museums and sites. The Territorial Capital Museum was the highlight of my visit (I didn’t have time to see Constitution Hall). The museum is a strange mix of historical site and antique store. You can find everything from furniture used by the original legislators to dollhouses, period-era clothing, and what must be the most varied collection of barbed wire in the world.
The interior is also adorned with numerous portraits of James Buchanan, who is generally ranked as the worst-ever US president. It may seem like an amusing choice, but it makes plenty of sense when you consider the era when Lecompton was most prominent. President Pierce’s acceptance of the Kansas-Nebraska Act may have sparked Bleeding Kansas, but under Buchanan it spiraled further out of control. A man like Buchanan may have been a relatively harmless president during the 1880s or 1890s, but during the years leading up to the Civil War, he was the wrong man for the job. Plagued by a narrow and restrictive view of presidential power, Buchanan turned to the Supreme Court to decide the slavery issue, pressuring justices in the Dred Scott case to put an end to the debate. Instead, Chief Justice Taney’s ruling enraged the nation. Buchanan likewise took a passive role when southern states began to secede, complaining that there was nothing he could do. Like Pierce had claimed, it wasn’t in his job description. Buchanan is immortalized in the Territorial Capital Museum — he was a man whose actions (or lack of them) made the full effects of Bleeding Kansas possible.
The Territorial Capital Museum has one last surprise up its sleeve, though: it has a direct connection with the Eisenhowers. President Eisenhower grew up in Abilene, Kansas and his parents had married in chapel of the Territorial Capital Museum building. At the time of the wedding in 1885, the building was home to Lane University, a small Christian college. Eisenhower’s parents had both met there as students. Fittingly, the museum has a huge collection of Eisenhower paraphernalia today.
Other curiosities include a Chester Arthur campaign button (which is even stranger considering that Arthur barely made an effort to get re-elected in 1884 since he was dying), a pen signed by President Nixon, and some pioneer-era washbins and scrubbing boards.
Outside of the museum and the signs, there is little to give away Lecompton’s secrets. As Beth Reiber at Unmistakably Lawrence writes, Lecompton “doesn’t look like the kind of place that might have played a hugely significant role in our nation’s history,” but the town “played a pivotal role in steps leading up to the Civil War.” That was my impression, too. It’s hard to imagine that this sleepy town, with its dirt roads and American flags, was once at the epicenter of national politics. Only a lone Confederate flag (a rarity on the Kansas side of the border) hints at a more complicated past. The south had tried to extend the reach of slavery beyond its traditional borders, and it didn’t go over well. Rather than the place where slavery began to die, Lecompton may instead have been closer to a desperate last stand on the wild frontier, a disastrous experiment in popular sovereignty.